I’ve read all three of Donna Tartt’s novels, but this is the first one I’ve enjoyed almost without reservation. The Little Friend, which I read because I ran across it in the library without knowing Donna Tartt was a Big Author of a Big Book, was fine but forgettable. And The Secret History was good, but I was bewildered that what seemed to be to be mostly a solid and overlong crime novel had become a literary darling.
The Goldfinch was worked better for me. I think part of the reason is that I’m tired of literary novels that dance around in time or play narrative tricks (dances and tricks that I sometimes suspect obscure plot holes). In this Tartt tells a straightforward story, and what surprises appear are there because the book’s narrator is in the dark, not because of narrative trickery. Like her other books, it’s probably longer than it needs to be, but the length helped me feel immersed in the story in a way that I might not have have the book been a more typical 300-400 pages.
The Goldfinch is the story of Theo who, at age 13, loses his mother in the bombing of an art museum. But in the confusion after the bombing, he walks away with her favorite painting, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. The novel follows Theo as he moves from home to home (his alcoholic father having abandoned him and his mother before the bombing), always with the painting in two, his special secret and eventual burden. Something he loves, but knows doesn’t belong to him, and doesn’t know how to handle.
I liked that the book takes Theo’s trauma seriously without including long discursions about what trauma does to a person. We watch the effects in his fear-driven decision making, his feeling of isolation (despite being cared for by so many people), his avoidance and eventual addiction. He knows from experience how suddenly and unexpectedly everything can go south, and he seems to arrange his life with that in mind. He’s not risk-averse — in fact, he’s sometimes drawn to risk. He just seems to live in the moment, dwelling on the immediate crisis, not considering the long-term consequences, because why would he?
Theo, as narrator, is the heart of the book, and I think it won’t work for any reader who doesn’t respond to who Theo is. But I liked the other characters, too. Most of them felt authentic, like people with their own histories that shaped them, even if we get little more than glimpses of them.
Toward the end of the book, as the story of the painting comes to a head, I began to feel its length. I wasn’t all that interested in the whole plot about the art theft underworld and found the number of characters and complexity of the action sequences overwhelming. That’s an area where the book could have been trimmed and simplified a bit without much harm, I think. Keep the cataclysm, yes, but involve fewer people. Otherwise, though, I enjoyed reading this. For me these days, good storytelling is the key to a good novel. Narrative tricks aren’t always needed.